European genetic engineers took heart this week from a landmark
vote in Switzerland that encouraged them to keep up the struggle to
catch their United States rivals in what promises to be one of the
most lucrative industries of the next century.
In the first referendum anywhere on genetics, Swiss voters June 7
turned down a proposal that would have strictly limited genetic
research into plants and animals. On a continent where the public
has been very wary of tampering with the genetic structure of what
goes into its food, the 2-to-1 vote to allow the research to
continue, and to let companies patent their genetic discoveries, is
seen as an important signal.
"A lot of people outside Switzerland were looking at this
referendum as a test case in Europe on ... gene technology," says
John Durant, a public-opinion specialist with the European
"It suggests that when push came to shove, the Swiss decided that
the gains outweighed the risks," Professor Durant adds.
The vote marked the second boost in a month for Europe's
biotechnology industry. On May 12, after nearly a decade of
wrangling and lobbying, the European Parliament in Strasbourg,
approved legislation allowing firms to patent inventions involving
biotechnology, in the face of continued opposition by
Business was happy. "This represents a major step forward," says
Brian Yorke, head of corporate intellectual property for Novartis, a
giant Swiss pharmaceutical firm in the vanguard of genetic research
into food and medicine. "It is essential to give the stability and
assurance we need to develop our biotech business."
The two votes have encouraged European bioengineering companies
fighting for a bigger slice of a global pie that will soon be worth
tens of billions of dollars, analysts say, as scientists develop
pest-resistant, longer-lasting fruits and vegetables by altering
their genetic makeup, and discover more effective medicines through
research on genetically modified animals.
Europe has seen something of a biotech boom recently in the
pharmaceutical industry. The number of biotech firms jumped from 584
in 1996 to 716 last year, as established companies such as Novartis
were joined by new start-ups including Innogenetics in Ghent,
When Rudi Marien launched Innogenetics in 1985, "it was impossible
to find money," he recalls. "I invested a lot of money together with
some friends." Last year, the company raised $80 million on a new
high-tech oriented stock market, and financing has become much
But Europe is still way behind the US in the genetic engineering
business: In 1996, a total of 584 European firms generated sales of
$2.2 billion, according to the European Pharmaceutical Association,
against $7.7 billion worth of sales by 1,300 American companies.
"Americans see this as a technology that is rapidly reaching
maturity," says Durant. "Europeans see it as a technology in embryo,
where things are just beginning."
Put it down to different mind-sets: hard-charging American
optimism and enthusiasm for the fruits of science against a more
conservative and skeptical Europe. Certainly the regulations in
Europe that govern genetic research are stricter than in the US.
In large part, this is because European consumers - and hence
governments - are much more worried about the ethical implications
and the environmental effects of genetically engineered organisms
than their American counterparts. Half of this year's US soybean
crop will be grown from genetically modified seed, which American
farmers regard as entirely normal. France approved its first
tentative planting of genetically modified corn last November, and
experimental transgenic crops are being grown on fewer than 200
carefully monitored sites in Britain.
In the wake of last year's panic over so-called "mad cow disease,"
believed to have been caused by feeding cattle with bone meal from
other animals, the British are especially concerned by the potential
dangers of new and untested food technology. …